Our American Dreams

A Sermon for the Fourth of July

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ Luke 10:8-9

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The Declaration of Independence

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address

I wanted us to hear today some of the words that have become part of our common understanding since the official establishment of our nation, which began with telling our rulers across the ocean that we desired to be free of them. Not even a hundred years later, that climate of freedom had devolved into a war between our countrymen. How can a country be free when some of its members are not? How can a country that supports slavery be a free country? The question wasn’t a new one. Starting this country was hard and uncertain, and it required both risk and compromise. It sounds strange to our 2004 ears to say that our founders had to compromise on slavery, but there it is.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. All men, all persons, are created equal. And the inalienable rights to which we are entitled are given to us by the Creator. These are four of the concepts that are intrinsic to our historical view of being American. It is the very nature of our existence to be free and forward-moving, to be seekers, and to include everyone in that freedom. We value life, according to the declaration, and liberty—or freedom—and the pursuit of happiness, which I have always taken to mean the pursuit of what fulfills each individual. Lincoln spoke at a dark hour despite the victory of his army, and I have so much respect for his ability to articulate the difficulty facing the nation. Could this experiment in freedom succeed? Or would it be brought down by our selfish pursuits, our inability to value freedom for others as we do for ourselves?

I’ve grown up in a time where the American Dream has come to refer to material gain. The pursuit of happiness has come to mean expanding one’s net worth in order to afford McMansions, SUVs, vacation homes and expensive wardrobes and furnishings. Too many people measure the dream that is America by the acquisition of wealth. And, honestly, even those of us who don’t have to admit that the rest of the world sees our country’s concept of freedom as meaning primarily freedom to take whatever we want, like spoiled children who have never been disciplined.

But my American dream still has those founding values at its core. And although I don’t always like the course my country may be taking as a whole, I do believe we have a better chance here than anywhere else of living in God’s kingdom. Lots of people came to this country believing they could live a utopian dream. Here’s the definition of Utopia.
Main Entry: uto•pia
Pronunciation: yu-‘tO-pE-&
Function: noun
Etymology: Utopia, imaginary and ideal country in Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More, from Greek ou not, no + topos place
1 : an imaginary and indefinitely remote place
2 often capitalized : a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions
3 : an impractical scheme for social improvement

I believe in that “often capitalized” definition of Utopia: a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions. But I don’t believe that Utopia is going to come up and knock us on the head!! With all this freedom comes the responsibility to bring about the same freedom for others.

Now here’s a problem for Christians. There’s a historical attitude for some of us that this life is meant to be hard, but that’s okay because we’re going to be free in heaven someday. The song we sang just now, “I’ll Fly Away,” clearly expresses that view. And while I am a believer in heaven and reunion with those we love, there is a trap in focusing so strongly on that view of our lives. It gives us an excuse to give up on the world and wait patiently to be invited into the New Jerusalem someday. Because surely the New Jerusalem is heaven, right?

Well, I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think Jesus calls upon us to bring it about here and now. He doesn’t tell the disciples to sit around praying and waiting for the end of the world. He sends them out to share the good news that God’s reign is near at hand. He tells them to travel light; he tells them not to worry about it when their message falls on deaf ears. Just keep moving and sharing the good news, he says. Some people are called to that still. But most of us are called to be in one place, and one of the most powerful ways we have to share the good news is to live out God’s kingdom right here and now. We do it by caring for the hungry, the homeless, the lonely and the friendless. We do it by loving each other. We do it by speaking up in the face of injustice, as Jesus did. We do it by being first and foremost people of our faith, a living and active faith.

It’s not easy. It’s quite difficult, in fact. For in this country of political and religious freedom, we may find ourselves in disagreement with those closest to us. It wasn’t just true during the Civil War. The lines drawn between the red states and the blue states on the political map can be drawn between neighbors, friends and even members of our families. In May I heard a talk by the minister at First Congregational in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mary Luti. Mary is a liberal both theologically and politically. She is a peace activist. And her brother, William Luti, is presently the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Special Plans and Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. He’s the architect of our plans in Iraq, and his sister is heartsick about those same plans.

But you don’t have to be in public life to have those kinds of struggles. In my family, we were Baptist Republicans on mom’s side and Methodist Democrats on dad’s side. One grandmother gave her money to Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, and the other grandmother was on the first board of Planned Parenthood in our community. They grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, knew the same people and even saw their children get married, but they had the freedom to be different and to interpret God’s calling in their lives very differently.

That’s where freedom gets hard. Your pursuit of happiness and mine may take very different roads. As people of faith, I believe our pursuit of happiness is found in seeking after God’s will for our lives, knowing full well we are free to seek it or not. We’re each born with some quality to develop that will show us our destiny, some seed in our soul which is looking for the right circumstances to root and then to break through and blossom. God, who set Creation in motion, is waiting to see if we will seek Him. God, who made the sun and rain that nourish growing things, is waiting to see if we will turn our faces toward Her. That’s my dream, my prayer today for each of us. The real utopia is not getting to a place of peace when we die, but making God’s peace manifest while we live. Amen.